A married woman was a feme covert
-- or covered woman -- whose recognition under the law was bound to that of her husband.
Marriage, as virtually every sentimental writer notes, makes a woman vulnerable to physical and mental abuse, and, legally speaking, she becomes a feme covert
, literally a hidden woman whose husband takes her property, her name, her very self.
The actual case on which this book is based is a tragedy, and the author gives it the operatic treatment it deserves in a big novel told from multiple viewpoints in numerous chapters with titles such as "Prima Facie," "Feme Covert
" (a reference to the law that defined every wife as a perpetual minor whose legal identity was subsumed by that of her husband), "Reasonable Suspicion," "Engagement," and on to "Verdict" and "Feme Sole." For anyone with an interest in the early feminist movement, in Victorian literature, or in "women's fiction" in the broadest sense, this book is not to be missed.
The first section of pamphlets presents accounts of women violently challenging their feme covert
status only to be reincorporated "back into patriarchy as victims" (40).
(11) Tucker referred to a law of 1727 that confirmed the status of slaves as real property and pronounced that the "right of a Feme covert
to a slave shall vest in the husband absolutely; that of a feme sole, on her marriage." (12) He proceeded to criticize this law as absurdly denying women their equal rights:</p> <pre> The laws respecting them [slaves] are not always founded in perfect Justice: A man marries a woman possessed of slaves in her own Right; they become his instantly upon the marriage; they may be taken in exemption to satisfy his previous Debts; if he dies in the Lifetime of his wife, she shall have the use of one third part of her own slaves, only, during her Life.
With marriage, the single woman's role changed from feme sole to feme covert
. The concept of coverture may be defined as "the common law fiction that a husband and wife were one person and that one was the husband; she being figuratively covered by him, she had no independent legal identity at common law for purposes of civil, and to some extent criminal, suits." (31) Despite the wife's loss of her legal control over her property, income, and body, she still played a significant role in the family, albeit in submission to her husband.
The married couple, she argues, is a legally indivisible unit; we refer to the wife as a feme covert
but we must see her in tandem with her husband, a baron covert.
I do not mean to suggest that Douglass used "The Heroic Slave" as a vehicle by which to comment on the erasure at law of the feme covert
Greenberg, "Paradise Enclosed and the Feme Covert
"; Susanne Woods, "Choice and Election in Samson Agonistes"; John Rogers, "Milton's Circumcision"; John P.
Howe acts as an unchallenged rather than suppressed mother, an unfettered feme sole rather than feme covert
, and as both public and private family leader.
See `The Feme Covert
in Elizabeth Cary's Mariam', Ambiguous Realities, ed.
Mary Frith took advantage of her rise in status as a married woman in claiming to be, as the case required, either a feme sole, a single woman, or a feme covert
, a married woman under coverture whose legal identity was covered by her husband.